Professor Phil Diamond, Director General, Square Kilometre Array


Currently entering the preconstruction phase in the creation of the world’s largest telescope, Professor Phil Diamond, Director General of the SKA talks to International Innovation about the ground-breaking project which is set to completely revolutionise our understanding of the Universe


For those who are unaware, what is the Square Kilometre Array (SKA)?

The SKA will be the world’s largest and most sensitive radio telescope. Thousands of linked radio wave receptors will extend over huge distances across deserts in Australia and South Africa. The SKA will unravel the most profound mysteries of humanity; investigating how the first stars and galaxies formed after the Big Bang, how dark energy is accelerating the expansion of the Universe, the role of magnetism in the cosmos, the nature of gravity, and even searching for life beyond Earth.

Having recently assumed the role of Director General, what skills and experiences will you bring to the role? Has the transition been a smooth one?

I have 30 years of experience in the field of radio astronomy and a longstanding involvement in the SKA radio telescope project. Having worked as a professional astronomer in five countries – the UK, Sweden, Germany, the US and Australia – I am accustomed to such an international astronomy environment. I have been the Director of two leading radio astronomy organisations: Jodrell Bank Centre for Astrophysics in the UK and more recently CSIRO Astronomy and Space Science (CASS) in Australia. As Chief of CASS, I was responsible for the team designing and constructing ASKAP, the Australian SKA precursor telescope. I also directed the operation of two major facilities: the Australia Telescope National Facility (ATNF) and the Canberra Deep Space Communications Complex (CDSCC), part of NASA’s Deep Space Network.

I chaired the SKA Science and Engineering Committee in 2005-06, which, along with my previous involvement in other aspects of the SKA project, means that I am already well-acquainted with many of the people involved. This, in combination with a good working knowledge of how the project operates, has stood me in good stead for a smooth transition.

Could you outline the role that you foresee the SKA playing in the context of future astrophysics and cosmology?

The SKA is being designed to address five fundamental unanswered questions:

• What is dark energy?

• Was Einstein right about gravity?

• What generates giant magnetic fields in space?

• How were the first black holes and stars formed?

• Are we alone?

These questions spark interest that extends far beyond the science community, having the potential to impact on everyone. In addition, while this is itself truly exciting and transformational science, history has shown that many of the greatest discoveries in astronomy have happened unexpectedly. The exceptional sensitivity and resolution of the SKA presents a very real chance that it could uncover genuinely new phenomena.

At what stage is the project presently?

We are now entering the preconstruction phase of the project which runs until the end of 2015. During this time the SKA engineering team will work with international partners to develop a detailed design for the telescope and will prepare for the start of construction in 2016. The SKA will be built in two phases and the second phase will start in 2020. The full telescope is scheduled for completion in 2024.

What are the main roles and responsibilities of the SKA Organisation?

The SKA Organisation is the central entity that coordinates the work of the international partners on the detailed design, preparations for construction and development of operational plans for the telescope. In mid-2013 the SKA Organisation will award packages of work to groups of partner institutes and companies that will be responsible for delivering large portions of the engineering design and development. These work package consortia will be coordinated by the SKA Organisation.

Which other countries are involved with the SKA Organisation? How do they each contribute and support the project?

There are currently 10 full members of the SKA Organisation: Australia, Canada, China, Germany, Italy, The Netherlands, New Zealand, South Africa, Sweden and the UK (India is an associate member). Every full SKA member appoints two representatives to the Board of Directors and makes a contribution towards the running of the SKA headquarters. Further members are expected to join the SKA Organisation in the near future.

Have you come up against any major challenges regarding the geographical, political and cultural management of the project?

The huge scale of the project is in itself a challenge and this is, of course, made more complex – and more interesting – by the diverse geographical locations, political considerations and cultural backgrounds of our partnering colleagues. However, the motivation for building the SKA comes from scientists who are accustomed to working in international collaborations and who are experienced in overcoming the challenges that these may present. International mega-science projects like the SKA enhance and reinforce international relations between countries that might not normally work together; they break down barriers, bridge political divisions and encourage interaction in an open and mutually beneficial environment.

How is the SKA drawing on the experience of precursor telescopes?

SKA technology is being demonstrated with precursor telescopes around the world. The lessons learnt in these projects both in terms of engineering design and in the operation of the facilities will be taken into account during the detailed design phase for the SKA.

The engineering team recently visited the SKA sites in South Africa and Australia to meet with the engineering and management staff and see the infrastructure and systems already in place. The information they gathered over the course of their visits is being used to help develop detailed implementation plans for the integration of the ASKAP and MeerKAT precursor telescopes, and associated infrastructure, into phase one of the SKA.

Which receptor technologies are being examined for consideration by the project?

The SKA will use 3,000 traditional dish-style receptors, each 15 m in diameter, complemented with hundreds of thousands of novel, smaller radio wave receptors, known as aperture arrays that greatly increase the field of view. The dishes, and low- and mid-frequency aperture arrays will provide continuous frequency coverage from 70 MHz-10 GHz. Combining the signals from these receptors will create a telescope equivalent to a dish with a collecting area of about 1 km2.

What are the five main science areas that will be explored when the SKA has been successfully completed?

Never before has there been such a versatile instrument with sufficient sensitivity and resolution to thoroughly address the following fundamental areas of physics and astronomy:

• Galaxy evolution, cosmology and dark energy – the relatively recently discovered acceleration in the expansion of the Universe has been attributed to a mysterious dark energy. The SKA will investigate this expansion, and the evolution of galaxies, by mapping the cosmic distribution of hydrogen

• Strong-field tests of gravity using pulsars and black holes – the SKA will investigate the nature of gravity and challenge the theory of general relativity by observing the influence of very strong gravitational fields on pulsars, the collapsed spinning cores of dead stars

• The origin and evolution of cosmic magnetism – the SKA will create three-dimensional maps of cosmic magnets to understand how they stabilise galaxies, influence the formation of stars and planets, and regulate solar and stellar activity

• Probing the Dark Ages – the SKA will look back to the Dark Ages, a time before the Universe lit up, to discover how the earliest black holes and stars were formed

• The cradle of life – the SKA will be able to detect very weak extra-terrestrial signals and will search for complex molecules – the building blocks of life – in space. Molecular studies are a particular interest of mine, pursued over many years with a variety of telescopes. I will be looking forward to using the SKA to continue to develop this work

Can you envisage spinoff benefits from the construction and operation of the SKA?

The increased capability offered by the SKA will result in a corresponding dramatic increase in the amount of data that will be collected and transmitted using high speed networks (such as GÉANT). The dishes alone will generate approximately 10 times the current global internet traffic, while fully functioning aperture array receptors will further increase data rates to more than 100 times the current global internet traffic! These colossal amounts of data present huge challenges in data transport, data storage and supercomputing.

Potential spinoff technologies in this area include applications that require high-speed detection and analysis; for example, intelligent surveillance for the recognition of faces in a crowd, tracking weather systems and traffic flow, and monitoring financial markets. The SKA will also have considerable energy needs and so can be used as a test-bed for low-power engineering innovations and novel methods of remote power generation – both of which could have far-reaching spinoff benefits for society.

The design and construction of the SKA will generate business and employment opportunities in science and engineering and also in associated support industries. It is also important to appreciate that mega-science projects like the SKA have the potential to inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers, and increased uptake of science and engineering subjects at university is, in itself, known to ultimately benefit a country’s economy.